When the Baldwin Lofts project started in the mid-2000s, Michael Lemanski was the company's only employee, and the former downtown department store's rebirth as residential lofts over a restaurant or some retail was by no means a sure bet.
There were some residential units in the so-called "city center" district, but little had been developed in some time, even as West Village showed the popularity of downtown rental properties.
But as far west as Mangum St., there wasn't any of the street-level life like restaurants and bars that could be found in Brightleaf Square. American Tobacco was under construction; the DPAC wasn't a sure bet; the downtown streets were tired and rolled up after 5pm.
By the end of the Baldwin Lofts project, Greenfire had purchased several properties, including the adjacent Kress Building with an eye towards owner-occupied condos; the company had also added its first outside paid employees. And by 2007, Jim Anile was linked to the Baldwin as the eventual proprietor of the restaurant Revolution the following year.
SInce then, Greenfire has had ups (acquiring a significant chunk of the City Center, successes with the Kress and Rogers Alley projects) and downs (delays in getting the Hill Building and Woolworth site redevelopments underway.)
But to hear the company describe it, the news this weekend that Greenfire would be converting the Baldwin Lofts project to condos (web site) is a sign of optimism in the local housing market -- as well as a sign that this project is ready to be closed out.
Lemanski told BCR in an interview on Monday that the West Main Street rental units, which have been eligible to go condo since October 2010, were planned from the start with the flexibility to be marketed for sale to owners; good sound isolation and washer/dryer connections in each unit were built into the plans. "Our intent was always to give ourselves that flexibility," Lemanski said.
Until last fall, though, two tax credit programs kept the units in the rental market. Financier Self-Help had taken New Market Tax Credits on the Baldwin Lofts project, which blocked resale in the first seven years' time since the project started.
Meanwhile, the project qualified for historic preservation tax credits, which lock-in against resale for five years from project completion.
Additionally, by law tenants have to be given a chance to purchase their units during a rental to ownership conversion. Lemanski said that Greenfire approached tenants in the Baldwin starting last fall to gauge interest in buying units.
Three of the twelve units were already under contract by the time of the announcement of sale last week, according to a press release late last week from Greenfire.
Ten of the units are studio apartments, generally from the mid-600s to low-800s in square footage. Two units for sale feature separate bedrooms; that includes the most expensive unit, a $350,000, nearly 1,300 sq. ft. two level unit.
For the studios, though, the pricing runs from just under $200,000 to just under $225,000 for the most commonly-found type.
Lemanski's optimistic that the properties will do well for sale, given Greenfire's ability to sell units at the Kress even as the housing market imploded during its sale period.
"There's very little supply, particularly historic properties or condos, something that has character downtown," Lemanski said. "We knew that the demand was pretty strong."
"Downtown is also a much better place than what it was, both than when we first finished the building, but also as things have progressed over the last couple of years," he added. "That increases the demand, and the higher demand impacts the prices as well."
The Kress building condos sold out at a higher price point than the Baldwin, albeit it with larger units and somewhat higher-end finishes, Lemanski noted.
Asked about the company's other projects, Lemanski said the firm is still eager to get the Hill Building's renovations downtown underway for the proposed Spark Hotel boutique hospitality project.
"We're confident we're going to be able to get it financed shortly and have some announcements to make there," Lemanski told BCR. "The lending market has clearly started to thaw, and there's a lot more interest."
And he noted that there's renewed interest in the Rogers Alley space next door to Dos Perros. The space was originally proposed for a Marco Shaw eatery, the Eno Restaurant, but that's project's fallen through while Shaw and financial backers have moved on to take over downtown restaurant Piedmont.
"We just put that back on the market when the Eno folks decided to formally walk away from that space," Lemanski said, adding that the site -- along with the old pharmacy space at the corner of Parrish and Mangum -- has "generated a lot of interest."